The Number of Israelites in the Exodus

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Excerpt Recently, ABR received the following question about the number of Israelites that left Egypt in the Exodus. Dr. Bryant Wood replies... Continue reading

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Recently, ABR received the following question about the number of Israelites that left Egypt in the Exodus. Dr. Bryant Wood replies. 

Dear ABR,

In several places, the Bible seems to suggest that the Israelites involved in the Exodus and Conquest numbered more than two million people (e.g., Ex. 12:37; Num. 1: 46; Num. 26: 51).

This figure seems extraordinarily large and skeptics often cite it as proof of the biblical account's inaccuracy. I know that various solutions have been offered, by James Hoffmeier amongst others, but there appears to be insurmountable difficulties with taking the texts at anything other than face value.

Is there archaeological evidence that the Promised Land received such a large influx of people during the period under discussion?

I would appreciate any perspective you might give me on this problem.

Thank you for the question: “Is there archaeological evidence that the Promised Land received such a large influx of people during the period under discussion?”

The number of Israelites who left Egypt at the time of the Exodus is a vexed problem.  It is possible, however, to make a rough estimate.  Following the Conquest, 1406–1400 B.C., in the subsequent Late Bronze II period (14th and 13th centuries), the urban population in the highlands where the Israelites settled remained approximately the same as it was prior to the Conquest (Gonen 1984: Table 4).  Based on highland burials, however, which includes both urbanites and non-urbanites, the population seems to have increased from the pre-Conquest period to the post-Conquest period (Gonen 1992: Table 5).  The overall population is difficult to access.  We do not have estimates for the Late Bronze I and II periods, but an estimate of the highland population for the previous Middle Bronze II period is ca. 65,000 (Broshi and Gophna 1986: Tables 1, 2, 6, 7,10, 11).  Another possible way to estimate the number of Israelites who left Egypt is by means of the number of captives the Egyptians acquired in Canaan four years after the Exodus, which amounted to ca. 100,000 (Wood 2008:105–106).

At the heart of the issue is the meaning of the Hebrew word eleph.  It is usually translated “thousand,” but has a complex semantic history.  The word is etymologically connected with “head of cattle,” like the letter aleph, implying that the term was originally applied to the village or population unit in a pastoral-agricultural society.  From that it came to mean the quota supplied by one village or “clan” (Hebrew Mišpāḥā ) for the military muster (Malamat 1967: 135).  Originally the contingent was quite small, five to fourteen men in the quota lists of Numbers 1 and 26, as shown by Mendenhall (1958).  Finally the word became a technical term for a military unit of considerable size, which together with the use of the same word for the number 1,000 has tended to obscure its broader semantic range.  See also Humphreys 1998 and 2000, and Hoffmeier 2005: 153–59.

I hope this helps.

Sincerely yours,

Bryant G. Wood

Editorial note: It should be emphasized that the number of elephs recorded in the Bible that departed from Egypt is without error and infallible. The issue is not whether the Bible is wrong. The issue is determining what the original Hebrew text means and translating those figures into English in a way that most accurately reflects the original meaning.


Recommended Resources for Further Study

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Broshi, Magen, and Gophna, Ram

1986  Middle Bronze Age II Palestine: Its Settlements and Population.  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 261: 73–95.

Gonen, Rivka
1984  Urban Canaan in the Late Bronze Period.  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 253: 61–73
1992  Burial Patterns and Cultural Diversity in Late Bronze Age Canaan.  Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Hoffmeier, James K.

2005  Ancient Israel in Sinai (New York: Oxford University).

Humphreys, Colin J.
1998  The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and XXVI.  Vetus Testamentum 48: 196–213.
2000  The Numbers in the Exodus from Egypt: A Further Appraisal. Vetus Testamentum 50: 323–28.

Malamat, Abraham
1967  Aspects of Tribal Societies in Mari and Israel.  In XVe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale: La Civilsation de Mari.  Les Congrès et Colloques de l’Université de Liège. 42.

Mendenhall, George E.
1958 The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26.  Journal of Biblical Literature 77: 52–66.

Wood, Bryant G.
2008  Recent Research on the Date and Setting of the Exodus.  Bible and Spade 21: 97–108.


Comments Comment RSS

1/5/2010 1:23 PM #

If it is true that the number of elephs is without error, then if we go with Mendelhall's suggestion of eleph being squads or sections, then this would contradict the 603, 550 in Numbers 1 or similar numbers elsewhere.  If the numbers that appear before the word eleph are sections or squads then the math would not add up to 603,550, it would be 596 sections and 5550 men

jeff martin - 1/5/2010 1:23:45 PM

3/23/2011 9:59 AM #

I also did the maths in Numbers 1 & 26 and agree with Jeff's comments.  

The census numbers give not only the number of each tribe but also the total number of the whole lot (Levi specifically excluded) so there appears to be very little room for any other interpretation other than a total number of circa 600,000 thousand adult males leaving Egypt and entering the land.  This suggests a total population figure close to 2 million which is only just over a quarter of the current population of Israel but a huge number for those days going on other historical precedents.

I wander if there has been any further research on this point since Jeff's last post?

jonathan rowland - 3/23/2011 9:59:21 AM

5/24/2011 8:35 PM #

The total numbers in Numbers 1:46, etc. also use the Hebrew word "eleph," so there is no problem that way.  The issue remains, what is an "eleph."  

A Canadian mathematician, John Byl, has an essay posted on the net which discusses the issue and includes bibliographic information for further research.

Ralph Allan Smith - 5/24/2011 8:35:02 PM

9/17/2012 4:24 PM #

Mr. Smith is quite correct in his post from 5/24/2011. The Numbers narrative also uses the term "'eleph", and thus, using the large numbers in the English translations of Numbers chapter one to say that the numbers do not match is circular reasoning.

There is certainly much more research that needs to be done on the subject. There are some unresolved difficulties, but they remain, as other Bible difficulties, unresolved. The argument that the Bible is in error because the problem is unresolved has been made ad infinitum, and is based on man-centered, autonomous reasoning as the ultimate presupposition.

ABR hopes to conduct further research into this area in the future.


Henry Smith
ABR Director of Development

ABR - 9/17/2012 4:24:30 PM

6/28/2013 10:52 PM #

Were there really more than half-a-million Hebrews who left Egypt, as the Bible says, and, if so, why is there no mention of such a mass exit in the ancient Egyptian records and why is there no trace of such a large multitude of people spending 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai to be found in the archeological record? The logical answer to both questions is that the number of people who left in the Exodus was much smaller than has been traditionally assumed.

I believe that the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt that is recorded in the Book of Exodus and Book of Numbers to be true and totally accurate, but I also believe that Bible scholars through the ages have misinterpreted what that account is saying as it pertains to the number of Israelites involved in the Exodus. Let me explain.

Numbers 1:19 says “As the LORD commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai” and Numbers 2: 32 says “These are those which were numbered of the children of Israel by the house of their fathers: all those that were numbered of the camps throughout their hosts were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.” Furthermore, Numbers 1:20-46 says that the number of men from each tribe who were 20 years old or older was as follows:

46, 500 men from Reuben.
59, 300 men from Simeon
45, 650 men from Gad
74, 600 men from Judah
54, 400 men from Issachar
57, 400 men from Zebulun
40, 500 men from Ephraim
32, 200 men from Manasseh
35, 400 men from Benjamin
62, 700 men from Dan
41, 500 men from Asher
53, 400 men from Naphtali
603,550 Total

Note that Numbers 2:32 includes all of the Children of Israel, whereas Numbers 1:20-46 is stated in terms of men over 20 years of age. Obviously, since the sums are identical, the figure 603,550 must be referring in both instances to the entire number Israelites, i.e., the men and those in their household they represent, not just the men by themselves.

Now, note that the figure for each tribe as recorded in Numbers, chapter 1, ends in a zero, which is the first hint that the term “number” is not a simple census (head count), but something else, since it is unlikely that each of the twelve tribes would all have a total number of people divisible by ten.

So, the term “number” must have a broader meaning in addition to “taking a head count,” and it does. It is the redemption value of the Children of Israel, as revealed by Exodus 30:11-15, which says “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahsSmile an half shekel shall be the offering of the LORD. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the LORD. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the LORD, to make an atonement for your souls.”

Since the redemption value for each individual was half a shekel, and a shekel was defined as 20 gerahs, then every person would have had a redemption value of 10 gerahs. The redemption value (or “number”) of the Children of Israel was 603,550 gerahs, which indicates that there were 60,355 Israelites who came out of Egypt in the Exodus.

Dan Bruce - 6/28/2013 10:52:08 PM

11/21/2013 11:00 PM #

I have been keenly interested in the Exodus Question for quite a while. I read Dan's article on the Journal of Prophecy Society website and here too, and I agree that 2 to 3 million Israelites are too many. Additional support for the smaller number leaving Egypt comes from Deut 4:38, 7:1, and 11:23 which God basically says that "the seven nations you will encounter in Canaan will be greater than you." Archaeologically there is no evidence of a large populace ever having existed in the land. If there had been 2 million Israelites, there would have to have been 14 to 15 million in residence before the arrival of Israel to have exceeded their numbers. And that was never possible. The land could not support that many.

James Major - 11/21/2013 11:00:18 PM

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